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From its weathered steel exterior to its automated shade screens, this airy, pavilion-style house is a testament to the benefits of sustainable design

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Designing their own home gives architects an ideal opportunity to walk the talk when it comes to eco-friendly design. The result can be a showcase for sustainability and contemporary design.

For architect Steven Ehrlich, designing a house for his own family also presented an opportunity to explore his fascination with transformation – the idea of a flexible living environment that can be simultaneously an indoor and outdoor space.

Ehrlich created a compound that provides privacy for the family, while still being part of the wider Venice, California community. This in turn renewed his interest in courtyard living – a concept he became closely acquainted with while living in Africa.

"Courtyards offer an interesting paradigm for high-density living in an urban neighbourhood," he says. "They allow all the space – both indoor and out – to be maximised."

Ehrlich's plan for his own house provided an ensemble of two structures and three courtyards, which were partly determined by a need to preserve three large, mature trees on the site. As well as the main pool courtyard on the sunny side of the house, there is a tree courtyard at the front, and a rear family courtyard that links the main house to a separate guest house and studio.

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Ehrlich says the eclectic nature of the coastal suburb – often described as the Petri dish of contemporary architecture – helped determine the house design.

"I chose raw, honest materials that would fit in with the grittiness of the Venice environment, and meet the requirement for sustainability," he says. "The exterior features low-maintenance steel, copper, stucco and Trex – a recycled, horizontal cladding material made from sawdust and plastic. All these materials have been left to weather naturally – the steel already has a rusty patina."

The architecture follows the contours of the long, narrow site, providing a double-height, pavilion-style house, with sliding and pivot doors opening to the courtyards. Framed with a steel exoskeleton, the structure incorporates retractable sun screens in burnt sienna and orange colours.

"The design dissolves the barriers between indoors and out, creating flexible living spaces that take advantage of the benign climate," says Ehrlich. "The sun screens can be adjusted as required to prevent the interior from overheating. They also define the pool courtyard, enhancing the sense of transformation, and bringing a splash of colour to the post-industrial aesthetic."

Opening up the sides of the house provides plenty of cross ventilation, eliminating the need for air conditioning. The double-height volume in the open-plan living area also helps keep the space cool – and is an architectural focus.

"Providing a more intimate, lower volume at the entrance compresses the space, enabling the living area to explode upwards and out," says Ehrlich. "The sense of space is further enhanced by the mezzanine glass bridge that appears to float across the middle of the room."

While waxed steel panels clad one wall of the interior, the opposite wall features exposed concrete block, which has a textured, shot-blasted finish. A cantilevered concrete hearth extends along the wall, providing a platform for displaying art. As with the exterior, no paints or varnishes have been used inside the house.

The flooring is also concrete, providing a thermal mass that retains the sun's heat in winter. Further energy savings are provided by a new photovoltaic system, which heats the water.

American walnut wood, a renewable resource, appears on the Japanese tonsu-style staircase, kitchen cabinets and wall panelling.

First published date: 06 November 2007

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Credit List

Architect Steven Ehrlich, FAIA, Mathew Chaney, AIA, Steven Ehrlich Architects (Venice, California)
Structural engineer Parker Resnick
Main contractor Mark Shramek Construction
Landscape architect Jay Griffith and Stefan Hammerschmidt
Site artist Woods Davey
Automated shades Mecho Shades
Photovoltaic system See Systems
Cladding Trex; weathering steel; Flexirock
Doors and windows American Glazing
Flooring Walnut wood; integrally coloured and lacquered concrete
Wallcoverings Carbon steel with carnuba wax; Orco concrete block
Lighting LSI track lights
Heating Radiant heat from hot water in floor, by Rusher Air
Furniture Tonsu stair, sofa and coffee table by David Albert Main photography by Grey Crawford; exterior pool images by Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai